For the Grateful Dead, 1970 — the year the group released two studio albums that would carry their legend much further than partisan Deadheads ever could — actually kicked off on Dec. 6, 1969, at Altamont Speedway. There, the Dead played an all-too-starring role in one of the rock era’s great tragedies, a free festival the Rolling Stones had set up in the Bay Area, at which one of the Hells Angels doing security killed Meredith Hunter, a Black concertgoer. It was, as many cultural histories have decided, a symbolic end to the Myth of the Sixties.
Barely two weeks later, at a gig in Los Angeles, the Dead debuted “New Speedway Boogie,” a blues chugger that was guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter’s direct response to Altamont. It was as single-event-based as any song the pair would write, yet also a summation of where America stood (or had fallen) in its post-hippie idylls. The prayer-like chorus — “one way or another, this darkness got to give” — carried both hope and foreboding. Later in 1970, Garcia would describe Altamont and Woodstock as “two sides of the same coin, [both] characterized by a historical heaviness.” The Dead began interpreting this American weight in earnest, and in a myriad of ways, developing new directions and audiences for their music without abandoning the powerful lessons of the psychedelic tests they’d already passed.
“New Speedway Boogie” was actually the final song written for what would become Workingman’s Dead, the album, released on June 14, that marked the band’s foray into country-folk-style soothsaying. Some of its songs were in fact almost a year old, dating back to June of ’69. The group were then at their lysergic-electric best, having just dropped Aoxomoxoa and recorded the legendary Live/Dead album, and had begun playing acoustic or country-rock-tinged sets full of folk and gospel standards and covers of Merle Haggard and John Phillips songs, in between new Garcia/Hunter compositions and 20-minute voyages through “Dark Star.” The Dead were avoiding hitting the inevitable wall of psychedelic exploration by pivoting toward tradition and craft. In doing this, they mirrored the narrative work of post-electric Dylan and his cohorts in the Band, the roots-country forays of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the harmonies pouring out of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the nascent Laurel Canyon scene.
Hunter’s Workingman’s characters were blue-collar folks, full of pathos, written with the insight of universal consciousness. There was a code at play here that may not have always been obvious in the world at large, and the Dead affixed it to hootenanny-scale music full of swagger, moans and layered meanings. There was a campfire sing-along that stared down fear (“Dire Wolf”); a bouncy miner’s lament questioning labor practices (“Cumberland Blues”); a death-bed scene full of jokes (“Black Peter”); a cocaine-blues railroad rocker that reveled in — and gave fair warning to — its nihilism (“Casey Jones”); and of course a self-serving anthem that tried balancing individualism and community from a historical perspective (“Uncle John’s Band”). They were standards of/for a new age, so of course Workingman’s Dead was a hit with FM radio and Rolling Stone readers, who named it their album of the year.
But if popular-music history has 1970 as the year the Grateful Dead embraced the countrified blues choogle at the expense of the anarchic acid-rock beast within, well … popular music was never really all that good at communing with the Dead. Not only did the band not let up their imperious electric-ensemble explosions, they turned them into marathons. Early in the year, the Dead added an acoustic set to what was now regularly a two-set electric jamboree. Sharing stages with the likes of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, the Duane-era Allman Brothers and Miles Davis’ electric band meant that their improvisational firepower needed to be fully loaded. Whether recasting “Dark Star,” finding another metallic gear in “That’s It for the Other One” or turning into an R&B behemoth when tightening up through epic versions of “Lovelight” or “Dancing in the Streets,” the plugged-in Dead simply found more room to roam.
By May, with Workingman’s taking off, the Dead also added a familiar opening act: New Riders of the Purple Sage was a Palo Alto-based psychedelic country group led by guitarists David Nelson and John “Marmaduke” Dawson, who regularly featured Garcia on pedal steel, along with Dead bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart. Billed as “An Evening With the Grateful Dead” and often featuring four-plus hours of music, these concerts not only descended upon the theaters that were the primary rock venues of the day, but were the band’s first extended foray onto college campuses.
Even as America’s social darkness wasn’t giving, the Dead were trying to beat it back with music. Fueled by Hunter, whose lyrical roll carried on unimpeded, they produced more and more material. Before Workingman’s had dropped, songs slated for American Beauty, the Dead’s other 1970 studio masterpiece, began emerging, with the bluesy ballad “Candyman” and the bluegrass picker “Friend of the Devil” both cut from a familiar cloth. But the next set of tunes to pour from Hunter’s pen — now scored not just by Garcia but by Weir and Lesh as well — tried to center something akin to a Zen hopefulness, when they weren’t simply observing life on the Dead’s never-ending road. That’s where Weir’s “Truckin’” and “Sugar Magnolia” came from.
But it was Garcia’s “Ripple,” a pristine koan about leader-less-ship, and Lesh’s “Box of Rain,” a lyrical gift to the bassist on the occasion of his father’s passing, that demonstrated Hunter trying to exchange the social realism of Workingman’s for American Beauty’s sense of personal peace. The album’s “Brokedown Palace” and “Attics of My Life,” two gorgeous ballads seemingly written from the point of view of a life long lived — though Hunter wasn’t yet 30 — both hint that finding such tranquility is indeed possible. Maybe even for all of us.
Yet soon after these songs entered the Dead’s live repertoire in late summer of 1970, proof came that for some this peace was illusory. If, for the band, Jimi Hendrix’s passing on September 18 was little more than tragic symbolism of how even the most majestic spirits cannot sustain this mortal coil, Janis Joplin’s death on October 4 hit much closer to home. One of the San Francisco psychedelic scene’s other leading lights — perhaps the singular talent — Joplin shared stages with the band throughout the entire period. The night of her death, many of the other huge local acts — the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service — were playing a live broadcast at the city’s Winterland Ballroom. “One way or another” inferred it wasn’t always a happy ending.
For the Dead, there was only one way, and as far as they were concerned, no end in sight. The rest of 1970 found the group grinding out for 30-plus more live dates, folding the Workingman’s and American Beauty material more clearly into their scheme of things, the psychedelic ’60s fading further into the rearview.
Hunter did what he was destined to as well. By the time the band’s first major multi-night live stand of 1971 came around, in February at the Capitol Theatre in the Westchester suburb of Port Chester, N.Y., there were already another handful of new soon-to-be-classics in the arsenal. Two of them created a “just exactly perfect” postscript to the dark and light of the band’s pivotal year: Garcia’s lovely “Bird Song” was a goodbye to Janis, a folk tune that would soon fly through the skies, while Weir’s “Playing in the Band” was a statement of rock and roll and community defiance, which never stopped serving the Grateful Dead.